Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Whole Forest for the Trees Bit

Here’s my rambling response to the David Orr piece I posted this morning (below).

I contend that “greatness” has left our collective imagination, and that it’s time for it to return (because it really hasn’t left, it’s just gotten warped into other things—into professionalism, for one, but there are others).

Now to say “greatness has left our collective imagination” is not to say necessarily that great poets have left—who knows—any number of poets writing now might be great and we just haven’t realized it yet—I would, by the way, nominate both Michael Palmer and Rae Armantrout as great poets (but I certainly could be wrong). And there’s always the frightening possibility that Billy Collins is great, and I’m busy off looking at the wallpaper. Yikes.

But enough of that. Right now, I’m more interested in the reception of “greatness” in our post-great times, where perhaps we are or are not, as poets, worth our weight in balloons.

The fact that the creative imagination is alive and well in American poetry is everywhere manifest, but the discussion, the real discussion about this imagination is everywhere lacking. One of the main reasons Ashbery is now sitting on the X of greatness has as much to do with people actually talking about his work as it does the work (or his or its aspirations) itself. Harold Bloom helped greatly this notion of Ashbery’s greatness. Of course, in my estimation, the work deserved it, but that doesn’t change that to be great one has to be considered great, and to be considered great one has to be talked about as, well, great.

Writers (mostly poets!) these days have a strong aversion to talking about greatness. Well, I think it’s time to pony up, everybody. We are in a pockets-of-interest time where, if we’re going to talk about poetry it’s either going to be to pitch a panel for AWP about how to sell and market a book, or to celebrate an aspect of the biography of ourselves or others. It’s all well and good to celebrate types of poetry that are reflected in their content, and it’s all well and good to talk about getting published, but I think we could and should do more with what we find truly great in the art of others. The “20 Books” meme that went around facebook last week is a wonderful example of this. It is creating a small but interesting conversation about what our personal reading lists consist of. It’s just one step from that to the next: where is greatness.

We’re in times that call for a large imagination. As goes politics, so must go culture. Here’s is how some poets are attempting to join that cultural conversation:

It’s another sign of hope.

I think that the conversations around postmodernism have, by illustrating all the failures of Modernism, propagated them on a smaller stage, and now that we are done with both, I feel it’s much less interesting to continue to think of hybrids and ghosts, than it is to actually have a conversation about the point we’re making, and to point to the future. I think the poets are already there, it’s just that we’re talking about ourselves with all the wrong words. Or something like that.

I don’t mean this to sound like a rant. If it does, then I’m missing my point, even if what my point is is a bit elusive. And obviously I’m not (I promise) thinking we should all start writing poems about the president (though there might be a bit [ouch] of truth in the accusation that poets these days have more interest in flashy wits than we do in having a point). But I do think we should be reading and talking about poetry in more productive ways, ways that might lead to us actually realizing the worth of some of the great poetry that we have before us.


At 2/25/2009 8:08 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

To sound my broken trumpet once again, this is one of the good things to come out of slam. There's an adage in the slam world that the best poem never wins (which is my #1 issue with the National Poetry Slam - the spoken/unspoken assumption is that winning is actually worth a damn). Yet with that reservation, every time a slam takes place, the entire audience is involved in deciding whether or not a poem/performance/poet is great. Divisions within the audience will appear, which at a good venue engender discussion.

Verification word: ressen, noun, a tasty Swiss dessert involving chocolate, coffee beans, and reindeer gall bladder

At 2/25/2009 8:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That might be good for the on-the-spot participation-aspect of slam, but what idea might come out of that for other types of poetry?

I certainly would really dislike it if poetry readings became competitions. That would ruin it for me.

And then there's the adage.

At 2/25/2009 8:42 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

For me it's twofold. One, engendering discussion. Two, being straightforward about what's happening.

The real power of slam is less about who wins that night than who gets talked about. To win means you impressed the five people who were judges. Or perhaps that you said something they really agreed with. But if you impress the host, maybe you get asked back to feature. If you impressed the audience at large, you'll find yourself with a line of people wanting to find out more. Which leads to exactly what you're advocating in your original post. We need to talk to and about the poets more.

The "secret" with slam is that it creates a more viscerally interesting atmosphere to talk to/about poets than the traditional reading or book club or discussion group. There is something on the line in all three cases - and here's where I mean we should be more straightforward - but the slam goes ahead and admits that something is on the line. The book group club might read three collections of poetry and decide to only return to one. That's competition, it's a decision on greatness, and it's so low-key and personal that it's easy to never make a poet great. S/he is an abstract who wrote poems in a book. The traditional reading is the result of someone already deciding that a poet is worthwhile - be it the feature at a slam or an invited speaker at a university. The audience has very little horse in the race. If it bothers to discuss the poetry at all once everything is over, it's safe discussion about themes or aesthetics, very little quality judgement. And if it did try to judge quality, who really cares? Somebody else put up the money/time to bring in that poet; somebody else already made the decision that this person was worthwhile.

Which is not to say that popularity = greatness. Far from it. And in fact I wish more slammers would take risks in their second and third poems (i.e. if you advance to the second round of a slam, do NOT just give the audience more of what they heard from you the first time out. Take that trust and love and give them something they didn't know they needed). But if we're going to get people interested in great poetry, interested in the possibility that greatness is out there at all, we need them to feel that something is being risked, that something is at risk. The mainstream approach to poetry at the moment risks nearly nothing.

Not poetry readings as competitions, but as part of a larger context that includes how that poet arrived in that particular room, why that poet wants to address that particular crowd, and what all involved might owe to each other.

Verification word: darks. Not even going to bother messing with this one.

At 2/25/2009 8:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It sounds like the slam world is healthy, and interesting, doing things that make it a community . . . but I can't get my head around what that might mean for other forms of poetry. Maybe I'm just being dull? It seems that what you're talking about here is specific to how slam is thought about and conducted, for it to somehow translate to other types of poetry, the other types of poetry would have to become slam poetry, it seems? And we already have that?

At 2/25/2009 10:19 AM, Blogger jeannine said...

People who fret there is no great poetry right now are simply not reading the right poets. Or their definitions are suspect. If we go by historical evidence, usually the next "great" poet is going to be ignored or condemned by their contemporary critics. And Ashbery, in that logic, is probably overrated.
Oh, I love that poster of Bender, by the way...I've got to get up early to go parasailing with movie stars!

At 2/25/2009 11:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree with you. But! But! But! I guess the point of Orr is that maybe we're reading things wrong not to find a "great" poet?

Yeah, so let's go find that great poet, I suppose?

Maybe it's Bender after all?

At 2/25/2009 5:38 PM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Hmmm, first, are you working with a definition where there is such a thing as "slam poetry?" When I say slam, I mean the competition and the poet-audience interaction that said competition entails, not a genre/aesthetic. That might be part of the miscommunication.

Thus me having more trouble answering you than I think I should. I'm not talking about taking a style of poetry and applying it to another style of poetry. I'm talking about the attitude taken in slams towards risk (you are embodying your poem on stage, therefore the audience sees that its reaction affects a real human being - if you want people to start having the dialogue about great poets, for better or worse the cult of personality has to become a serious topic of discourse), towards dialogue (more than most page poetry: there is the opportunity to talk about a poem that people liked, to sit down over a beer with said poem - not many page poets even do introductions to their volumes these days), towards power (located between poet and audience - again, not to be a populist, as I write things definitely not for untrained readers, but "great" has historically been associated with folks who do not just write for specialists, better yet if their work can be understood on many levels by many readers/listeners). Which is in part a long way of saying that to get a great, like a hundred years from now great, poet, said poet will be named by a huge variety of people and will also have to have tried to become great by appealing to a bunch of currently-mutually-exclusive groups.

It's a lot easier to be a professional than to go for greatness. I see those Top 20 poetry book lists going around. Any chance we can start one of poets who went for it all?

At 2/25/2009 5:52 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

JeFF, yeah, I see your point about "going for it all," but I would hope that all poets do. I really hope so.

No, the difficulty I'm having is not with anything you're saying about the slam world, I feel you're doing a good job describing it. What I'm having a difficult time understanding is what you're saying about to link between the slam world and what you term page poets.

I understand that you're saying page poets are more distant from the place of reception of their poems, and that the slam world forces the performer to be fully present.

What I suppose I'm asking is how you might see the page poet world learning from the slam world or how and why one might or might not think that page poets currently don't go for it all.

I'm just having a difficulty in understanding.

WV: syiness

At 2/26/2009 8:23 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Sorry for the delay in responding. I'm trying to balance thoughts from a variety of places, including an ongoing conversation about audience and performance over at Barbara Jane Reyes's blog.

As far as things I see page poets doing that hold them back from greatness (N.B. There is a huge list of things stage poets do that hold them back from greatness as well, but we're concentrating on this somewhat artificial group called "page poets" for the time being)...

One, I simply don't see the self-promotion out of poets who write for the page as I do poets who perform. The good aspect of this is a refreshing handle on one's own ego in the page world. The downside is that greatness, in the kind of terms we're talking about here, is accompanied by ego. As far as lesson from slam - more self-promotion by page poets. Lining up readings at every possible venue, from open mics to Barnes & Noble to student groups who may have a vested interest in subject matter to local/regional libraries. Without a broader audience, which is something poets have to work for, greatness will always be in the hands of a few publishers/critics/scholars.

Two, combining efforts. Most slammers do solitary tours. Buddy Wakefield and Big Poppa E are sort of the kings of that route. But there are a handful of touring groups of poets, anywhere from 3-5 members (often with "pickup" regional members). There are usually connecting stylistic elements in the groups, but having several poets over the course of the evening provides a texture that is often lacking in the one-(wo)man show. As far as lesson, do I think we should all start booking tours with each other? OK, that would be a hell of a lot of fun, but I'm thinking more about The Scarlet Compendium by Alice Notley and Douglas Oliver. A myriad of works by each other, smushed into the same volume a la a medieval compendium. And Notley's "The Descent of Alette" rightly rose to the top of that volume and was later republished on its own by Penguin. Which is to say, less of the one-poem-in-a-journal/anthology-one-poem-at-an-open-mic model and more of the ten-poems-from-each-of-four-authors model. Adjust numbers as need be, and absolutely accept a "worse" poem from an author who otherwise has submitted three good poems. Let them stand in relief.

Three, this needs to become a regular and natural conversation for more people than just us. The funny part about all these posts, wherein I'm explaining myself poorly, is that my original attempt was to agree with your general sentiments and just point out an area where I see some of this happening already. But we're conversing. That's good. We do it regularly, about various poetic subjects. We are, however, poets. If we're going to play the greatness card, we need more than just the specialists arguing about what's great. That'll likely mean us defending what we do (as you said, people say your stuff is weird, and next to some of mine yours looks normal) against an "untrained" reader a lot of the time. But for the love of all that is holy, somebody get an interesting poet into every high school in the country to save those kids from boring units on poetry, taught largely by teachers who themselves weren't that fond of poetry (i.e. "didn't get it"). Do not just assign Poetry 180. Get in there, find out what the kids listen to / watch, what they want to hear / read, what they need to hear / read, then see if you can offer all three. Call up the school you went to and see if English teachers will have students read your blog and discuss. See if an art teacher is willing to collaborate on the school's own personal Poetry in Motion type posters. Offer one of your own poems, perhaps a really, really difficult one, as one of the choices. Pay a tagger to graffiti one of your poems on a subway stop. Make up business cards that have one of your poems on them and leave them in public places. Make yourself present. Which is partly a long way of saying that "page poets" don't go for it all because there are so many places they can take poetry, take themselves and their art, and instead they hope that they'll be recognized after they're dead.

Wow, I'm on a soapbox now, and it's probably no longer a helpful soapbox. I'm just thinking that presence really does have a huge amount to do with this, in my opinion. We can toss around ideas like the death of poetry, but in my time in Bryan-College Station I saw the literary scene go from a handful of readings each year, usually advertised the week before, to a slam, two massive writing conferences, several open mics, and student organizations asking (ASKING) for poets to read at fundraisers and community events. Did anything great come out of that scene? Maybe. Maybe not. But poetry was, for a time, becoming part of the culture, and people besides the poets were talking about what was the best work and why.

Verification word: misten, noun, a small rodent that looks exactly like a rabbit, but isn't

At 2/26/2009 1:32 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

I have a pony.

At 2/26/2009 3:42 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


We simply MUST do something about how poetry is encountered in High School. I think that all English Ed majors MUST take some sort of introductory creative writing course. I think that would do a lot to help poetry be alive. That ight also help the conversation.


I wish I had a pony. Our neighbor has some horses. That's nice.

wv: doughta: what you call your daughter in Boston?

At 2/27/2009 5:36 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...


Not for nothing, but when I taught H.S. English, my senior English was practically a year long seminar in poetry. Here are a fe of the Literature highlights:

Illiad & Beowulf (exerpts)

Caedmon's Hymn

Gawain & the Green Knight (Plus discussion of Morte d' Arthur, the Mabinogion, and The Grail Legends)

Canterbury Tales (prologue, pardoner's tale, others on occasion)

Shakespeare's Hamlet (Plus the construction of the sonnet)

John Donne & The Metaphysics (not the 1960's band, either)

The Romantics (everything I could cram in)

19th Century Victorian Lit.

In fact, the first real prose I ever taught my seniors was Heart of Darkness.

Now I am happy to teach the occasional creative writing class. It certainly didn't hurt that my professor for Methods of Teaching English in the Classroom was the Utah Poet Laureate.

What disturbs me most is the fact that I have worked with a lot of English teachers in the H.S. and Jr. High, and most of them detest reading poetry, and most don't ever write for thier own pleasure.

For my Master's project (in literacy studies) I advocated improving the perceptions of poetry in the classroom. If I can ever find it, I will e-mail my horrid little paper to you.

At 2/27/2009 6:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Justin, please do.

I'm serious. I think even more than having pedagogy classes on literature or lit seminars on poetry, a general creative writing class would do wonders to help English Ed majors.

It was part of the curriculum at Ohio University, and I believe (from anecedotal evidence) the students/ future teachers benefited greatly.

At 2/27/2009 8:07 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Any chance I can get a copy of that paper as well?

Verification word: pones, noun, the gibbly bits on one of Justin's ponies

gibbly, adjective, in alternating black and white squares, as per many 80s album covers


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